With the special U.N. investigative commission barred a third day from visting the occupied U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the American hostages appeared once again yesterday to have become the shuttlecocks in a desperate game of Iranian power politics.
The panel began its fact-finding mission with a different assessment of the political dynamics of Tehran. U.N. members had hoped that President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, fresh from this stunning electoral victory, had gathered enough power to assure smooth sailing for the commmission.
But 10 days after their arrival in the Iranian capital, the five lawyers forming the commission face the same kind of shifting and contradictory power centers that have complicated a settlement of the hostage crisis for the past four months.
Even Bani-Sadr, who boasted last month that freeing the hostage would be easy, has suddenly recalculated. In an interview published yesterday, he cautioned that "more time should pass before their release" and he signaled Washington to remain patient.
Bani-Sadr's new hestiancy on the hostage issue apparently reflects his failure to tame the competing power of the militant embassy captors as well as to assure the full and consistent support of the powerful revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Nothing better illustrates the continued splintering of power in Iran or underlines the fears of those seeking to end the crisis than the waiting game centering on the inquiry commission's plans to visit the estimated 50 Americans held hostage for the past 121 days.
Visting the hostages to ascertain their condition is considered a key part of the commission's work. It was agreed to in writing by Bani-Sadr and pressed hard by U.S. officials who have long favored periodic examination of the captives by neutral international observers.
Although Iranian authorities have publicly backed the planned visit since Friday and the ruling Revolutionary Council unnanimously supported the meeting in a vote yesterday, the embassy captors have continued to block the panel's entry.
In a series of conflicting statements, spokesmen for the militants first flatly refused to consider the visit, then suggested that the Revolutionary Council's decision would influence them and finally said they would admit the panel only at Khomeini's request.
"What is important is to consider whether the visit to the hostages by the commission is connected with the task of this commission, whether this decision has been taken under the pressure of the United States, and also to consider what is our situation at the moment," a spokesman for the militants told Reuter yesterday.
"We must study all these possibilities, and, anyway, in the end if the Imam [Khomeini] orders it, it will be possible," the spokesman said.
Khomeini, 79, bedridden for more than a month with a heart ailment, left his hospital Sunday night for a new home in northern Tehran and spoke briefly about the need for Iranians to participate in elections for a parliament later this month.
But the wily religious leader, who is known for unpredictable political twists and turns, said nothing about the hostages or the controversial commission visit that many believe may be a key test of the panel's ability to find a solution to the crisis.
Khomeini, the only Iranian figure who commands the full loyalty of the militants, threw off the timing of the U.N. initiative 10 days ago when he decreed that the hostage issue should be settled by the parliament, which is not expected to meet until April.
Since Iran's revolution last year, Khomeini has been the ultimate authority in Iran, forcing competing centers of power to bid with him to settle disputes.
Bani-Sadr, who was elected president with 75 percent of the vote, has tried to gradually whittle away the militants' power, however, in the apparent hope of gaining enough popular backing to isolate the young Islamic radicals and prove to Khomeini that public support for the embassy occupation has ebbed.
In an interview to be published next week in the West German magazine Stern, the Iranian president continued his attacks on the militants, reemphasizing that his government -- not the captors -- will have the final say about the release of the hostages.